helping people grow
Overwhelmed by Emotions:
Managing Strong Feelings Consciously
© 2015, Jacqueline Nikolejsin, M.Ed., RCC
Emotions play an important and necessary role in our lives. At a base level, emotions are the result of electrical and chemical signals in our body, yet these signals actually give us a wealth of information by alerting us to what we like and do not like and whether a situation is okay or not okay. For example, we experience the emotion of love for other people for whom we develop feelings. We experience happiness when things are going well for us, like enjoying satisfying personal relationships or engaging in meaningful work or hobbies. The emotion of fear tells us we feel threatened or that we are afraid of losing something or someone important to us.
Emotions also prompt us to take action when we do not like a situation, such as when we feel angry when someone disrespects us. When something seems unjust or unfair, our emotions can motivate us to take healthy action. We communicate with our emotions by using facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language to tell others how we feel and to learn how others feel.
Emotions fall into six general categories: anger, fear, sadness, shame/guilt, love, and happiness. Obviously, love and happiness are emotions that we welcome and enjoy. Fear, anger, sadness, and shame and guilt, on the other hand, are more painful emotions, but these are emotions that are common to everyone’s life. Even the happiest and most emotionally healthy people experience painful emotions — life naturally has its ups and downs, pains and joys, good times and bad times — and painful emotions are a natural result of the difficult times. To experience painful emotions does not mean that you are weak, rather, these are normal and healthy. Ultimately, emotions serve an important purpose by providing significant information about how you experience a situation.
Emotional regulation and emotional dysregulation
Pain is a natural part of life, and while there is no doubt that some experience more pain than others, we all experience hard times at some point which results in emotional pain. This is part of being human, and painful emotions are natural and healthy. If, however, you find yourself emotionally reacting to things that people typically do not react to, or your reaction is more intense and long-lasting compared to the average person and it takes longer for you to get back on your feet, you are probably not managing your emotions as well as you could. This is called emotional dysregulation -- an emotional response that is not effectively modulated. Some may find themselves so emotionally overwhelmed with a situation that they are unable to think straight. When you cannot identify, understand, or express your strong emotions, they become difficult to manage, making the situation worse and likely affecting your relationships and self-esteem. Rather than consciously manage and move though painful emotion, you might find yourself reacting in ways that may seem to help in the short-term, but have negative consequences in the long-term. For example, you might avoid or try to get rid of your emotions by distracting yourself with drugs or alcohol, overspending, over-exercising, or by avoiding people and responsibilities through immersing yourself in TV or technology. You might also instigate fights with those you care about or dwell on different distressing situations instead of managing the current situation.
Emotional regulation, on the other hand, is the conscious management of emotion through an active thought and behavior process. We acknowledge, explore, and understand our emotions and use discernment to determine the most effective and appropriate way to respond, ultimately moving on, even if the situation cannot be changed, such as in the loss of a relationship, job, or health.
Learning to regulate your emotions
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf” (Jon Kabat-Zim, 1994). In life, painful times are inevitable. How you react or respond to painful times will determine whether or not you make a situation even more difficult for yourself. Generally, we can approach any given situation in three ways—from our emotional self, our reasoning self, or our wise self (Lineman 1993).
Those who have difficulty regulating their emotions tend to draw most from their emotional self. Rather than thinking about the best way to respond to a difficult situation, their emotions control their behavior and they simply react to the situation rather than respond. For example, you may lash out physically or verbally when angered; when fear arises, your emotional self causes you to avoid situations that evoke this feeling, such as going to the dentist, attending a social gathering, or taking on a new challenge. In times of sadness, your emotional self might cause you to stay in bed rather than go to work or exercise. If your emotional self reacts to shame or guilt, you might withdraw and isolate yourself from personal and professional situations. In the long run, reacting to a difficult situation with your emotional self is not in your best interest.
It is also possible to approach a situation predominantly with your reasoning self. When you react with your reasoning self, you tend to discount or ignore your emotions in favor of your logical thoughts before taking action. Here, logic and fact dictate your reaction to a difficult situation but sometimes at the cost of a more balanced and effective solution. For example, it might seem logical to stay in an unhealthy relationship due to financial security, disapproval from others, or other demographics, but if you only consider these aspects, you may be left in an unsafe situation physically and emotionally for yourself and for your children.
Approaching a situation from your wise self is the most effective way to respond to painful emotions. When you are able to regulate your emotions, you draw on your wise self, effectively balancing your response between your emotional self and your reasoning self. You consciously determine the wisest course of action while paying attention to your feelings. You work to make sense of your feelings while you also assess the consequences of choices to establish a conscious course of action. This is emotional regulation.
Approaching a difficult situation with your wise self may sound simplistic or even just common-sense, but all too often common sense is not accessible during a crisis. If you have intense emotions, they can take over and inhibit your understanding and sense of reason. You should not wait until you are in an emotional storm before you ask yourself: “Am I responding or reacting?” “Am I approaching this situation from my wise self or my emotional self?” You can consider this idea by asking these questions for smaller things like: “When will I do my laundry?” or “Who will I invite to my birthday party?” or “When should I start working on my presentation?” By practicing the habit of responding with your wise self in everyday situations, you can be better equipped to use your wise self in a crisis. Regulating your emotions well does not mean that all of your emotional pain or the difficult situation will magically disappear. But by consciously responding, you can get through the situation more effectively in both the short-term and the long-term. At times, this will mean an acceptance of the situation itself.
This strategy comes from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is a comprehensive therapeutic approach that combines mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness skills. The approach has been successful in helping people manage their painful emotions in healthier ways, even when the situation itself cannot be changed.
If you would like to learn more about DBT, I encourage you to read: The Dialectical Therapy Skills Workbook by Matthew McKay et al. (2007) or Calming the Emotional Storm by Sherry Van Dijk (2012).
Please also consider visiting my Drop-In DBT Skills Training Group, and be in good company with others who also struggle with strong emotions and want to learn about behavioral therapy like DBT. This group will meet every Tuesday evening from 7:00pm to 8:30pm, and you are welcome to come once, twice, or as many times as you’d like. The cost is only $20/person. The Drop-In DBT Skills Training Group will begin on Tuesday, December 1, 2015 at Arbour Counselling Centre.